[5th Allotted Day]

Part of European Union (Withdrawal) Act – in the House of Commons at 3:21 pm on 9th January 2019.

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Photo of Keir Starmer Keir Starmer Shadow Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union 3:21 pm, 9th January 2019

I will just make this point and then give way.

I was here for Prime Minister’s questions today, and I carefully noted what the Prime Minister said in answer to the first question from my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition. First, she said that the changes that she is now relying on are the results of the December European Council summit, at which the EU agreed that it would use “its best endeavours” to secure the future relationship as quickly as possible. What else could it say? Of course, we would hope that it would do that. However, the EU also said at the same summit that the withdrawal agreement cannot be renegotiated, so that does not take us very far.

Secondly, the Prime Minister said that further clarifications might be “possible” by Tuesday, so we are in exactly the same position as we were on 10 December, with a hope for possible assurances—there may be something coming.

Thirdly, the Prime Minister referred to the paper on Northern Ireland published this morning, and the Brexit Secretary referred to it, too. Members may not have had the chance to read this 13-page document, but I have read it. I do not dismiss anything that marks a step towards ensuring that the concerns in Northern Ireland and across the whole United Kingdom are addressed, whatever they are, so I am not dismissing this document. However, on my reading—if I am wrong, I will correct this or be corrected—I think I am right in saying that the document does not contain any new commitments. It brings together the unilateral commitments made in other places at other times into one document. I have been going through the document as I have been in the Chamber, so if I am wrong, I will be challenged but, as far as I can see, it just builds on the unilateral commitments in paragraph 50 of the phase 1 joint report document from December 2017 and adds the commitments that the Prime Minister has made in Belfast and other places. I am not saying that those commitments are not important or are without significance. I do not dismiss them, but we need to see the document for what it is, which is a bringing together of existing commitments. The position has not changed between 10 December and today.

The fourth thing that has been relied upon as a change that the House needs to take into account is that it is now said that Parliament will have a role in July 2020 when we must choose whether to apply for an extension of the transition or to go on to the backstop. There are several points about that, one of which is that it does not change the options, and I will develop why I think that those options will have to be exercised. Arguably, it is the logic of the article 50 case in the Supreme Court, certainly if we go on to the backstop, because the whole argument in the Supreme Court was that if we change the rights of individuals in this country as a matter of international law then we have to have a vote in this House, so I am not sure that this is much of a gift or concession from the Government.

The other point is the practical reality, which we have seen today and yesterday: the idea that the Prime Minister or anybody else was going to get away with freezing Parliament out of that decision in July 2020 is misconceived. We were always going to have a say on that, because it is such an important position. So the proposition on the table is not altered. The Brexit Secretary did not answer substantively on Monday because the December summit does not really take us anywhere: further clarifications may be possible but they are still long awaited, the Northern Ireland paper is a bringing together of existing commitments that does not change anything, and Parliament was always going to find a way of having a say in July 2020 as to which option we take.